Gore Vidal once wrote that when the Kennedys moved to Washington, it was as though the Borgias had taken over a sleepy Italian hill town. Nothing similar could be written about the advent of Obama. Barack Obama’s inauguration marks the maturation of Washington, D.C. as the capital of a metropolitan nation. The Washington metro area is not only a wealthy and sophisticated world city, but also the mecca of America’s rising elite of highly credentialed professionals.
When Irving Kristol in the 1980s transferred the neoconservative intellectual quarterly The Public Interest from New York to Washington, he was ahead of his time. The center of gravity in publishing and media has steadily shifted to Washington, where many of the columnists and reporters for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times are already part of the permanent D.C. establishment. In 2005, the Atlantic Monthly, born as the mouthpiece of the New England intelligentsia, moved its editorial offices to Washington. The demise of the print media is likely to accelerate the decline of Manhattan as the US media center.
As Washington becomes a center of commerce and the arts as well as of politics and bureaucracy, the U.S. is coming to resemble centralized nation-states like Britain or France with rich, metropolitan capitals.
Although Johns Hopkins and Georgetown are world-class universities, higher education in the Washington area is still overshadowed by the traditional Ivy League. But the expansion of think tanks of all kinds—partisan, ideological, lobby-driven—has made the Beltway the hub of policy-oriented research. The think-tank world shades insensibly into the lobbying sector, which not only grows but provides a home to ever-more former members of Congress, Capitol Hill staffers and veterans of the White House.
All of this feeds a caricature of Washington as a parasite on the real economy. But Washington is no longer a one-dimensional, provincial company town. In the last generation, the tech corridor in northern Virginia has provided the D.C. area with a flourishing private sector of its own. As of 2007, the three richest counties in the US in terms of per capita income were Loudon County and Fairfax County in the Washington’s Virginia suburbs and another D.C. metro area county, Howard County in Maryland. The collapse of Wall Street and the de facto nationalization of much of the private sector by the federal government will accelerate the eclipse of New York by Washington as the center of the American business and banking communities.
The region now enjoys the urban amenities associated with great world cities, from thriving theater to fine restaurants and great public spaces. Gentrification has shoved the urban poor into Maryland, converting former slums that were burned out in the 1968 riots that followed the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. into a yuppie’s paradise of townhouses and coffee shops.
This marks a lasting change in America as well as Washington. Until recently, in its relationship to its capital, the US resembled an American state, in which the center of government—Albany, Sacramento, Austin—is not the center of commerce and fashion. As Washington becomes a center of commerce and the arts as well as of politics and bureaucracy, the US is coming to resemble centralized nation-states like Britain or France with rich, metropolitan capitals. At the same time, regional and racial differences in the US, although still important, have been eroded, as the election of a mixed-race president from Hawaii by way of Chicago suggests. While pundits continue to predict the demise of the nation-state, the US, despite its immigration-driven diversity, is far more homogeneous in culture and values than it was in the 1900s or 1800s.
The emerging leadership elite in Obama’s centralized, homogenized America is the university-credentialed meritocracy to which Obama and his wife Michelle belong and from which he drew his strongest support outside of the African-American community. Richmond in the early 19th century, even before it became the Confederate capital in 1861-1865, was the de facto capital of the Southern slave-owner oligarchy that dominated the federal government before the Civil War. Manhattan in the early 20th century was the real capital of the nation-wide business and banking elites. Twenty-first century Washington is the center of the professional-professorial overclass whose bases beyond are universities and ex-urban research parks. The culture of the new overclass is not that of the self-made business owner, but rather of the kid who scored well on tests and can deploy a mean PowerPoint. The Obama administration, like American society as a whole, is dominated by confident wonks and professors, who are America’s equivalent of the enarques who graduate from France’s Grandes Ecoles. Their ideal of democracy tends to be diplomacracy—benevolent rule by people with diplomas.
The new meritocratic overclass or mass upper middle class is a great improvement over the Northeastern Protestant industrial bourgeoisie that preceded it, just as the old Northeastern establishment was an improvement over the Southern plantocracy. The university-educated overclass is a truly national and increasingly post-racial elite.
But all elites share tendencies toward snobbery and arrogance. The old plutocrats of New York despised people without money. The credentialed overclass centered in Washington and the universities despises people without elite educations. The old elite worried that the masses were too improvident and seditious. The new elite worries that the masses are too fat, ignorant and religious. The creepy enthusiasm shown by America’s newly powerful diplomacrats for political correctness, soft paternalism and nanny-state social engineering is symbolized by University of Chicago colleagues of the new president Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s idea of “libertarian paternalism,” which would turn government into a nanny-in-chief charged with making us all healthy and smart in spite of our irrationality. The enthusiasm for running other people’s lives that inspires America’s new elite can make one long for Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred, who didn’t object if a longshoreman endangered his arteries by enjoying a steak, as long as they weren’t taxed to pay for it.
For better or worse, the diplomacrats are in charge of Washington. And Washington increasingly is in charge of America.
Michael Lind is Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.